College Students Seek More Counsel

Services burgeon, from 'Choices 101' to campus radio talk shows and online groups

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Ilene Rosenstein, the director of the counseling center at the University of Pennsylvania, sat down last year to gauge how many students might seek services, she miscalculated - by a full one-third.

In total, the center, which was swamped by phone calls and consultations, assisted roughly 10 percent of the student body last year, or about 2,500 students. "The number of students is growing tremendously," says Dr. Rosenstein.

In response, colleges and universities around the country are scrambling to accommodate them. Spurred by everything from student doubts about time constraints and workloads to studies indicating a rise in student anxiety and depression, administrators are assembling a wide array of services. And students, many of whom see counseling as a popular option that no longer carries any stigma, are flocking to take advantage of them.

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"Students hunger for advising," says Jill Carnaghie, director of campus life at Washington University in St. Louis. "In the mid '70s there was a sense they didn't have much to learn. Now, we want to provide receptive students with resources they can use if and when they want to."

Colleges' efforts run the gamut, often with a focus on reaching a broad swath of students. At Washington University, for example, students must take "Choices 101," which doles out advice on such hot-button concerns as drugs, sex, and roommate wars that could affect academic performance.

The University of Texas at Austin, which has one of the largest counseling centers in the country, offers "Shrink Wrap," an interactive radio program with two university psychologists who field questions on the mundane - cafeteria food - and the far more complex, such as fascination with the Internet that crowds out class work.

On the creative extreme, Shenandoah College in Winchester, Va., encourages students in a dance class to write poetry about their experiences with alcohol and perform an interpretive dance for the class. Instructors of anatomy and physiology courses also explore the downside of drinking.

The need to stay ahead

Most experts cannot point to a dominant cause for the rise in student demand for help. But many, including Rosenstein, say that in a competitive era, students are seeking any means to stay ahead. And they point out that these students are quick to look beyond their peers for help.

"Many students see [counseling] as a way to better themselves," Rosenstein says. "They want to be the best. Just as they might hire a personal trainer for their body, these kids are getting counselors for other problems.

"They are relatively healthy people," she adds. "But they want to be able to go into a job interview without getting nervous, and they're coming to us for help."

Michael Cappeto, dean of students at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., agrees that future security often figures prominently in student concerns.

"People in their late teens and early 20s are far more career-oriented than before," he says. "They should be using these years to develop interests. Instead, they're feeling the need to pick a career path."

But many students have more deep-seated needs. According to a recent study at the University of Pittsburgh, 75 percent of college counseling services have seen a rise in the number of students with serious psychological needs.

Dr. Cappeto also can't pinpoint a specific reason for the rise. "We thought there was a lot of stress in the late '60s," he says. "Kids today aren't having to confront the possibility of going to war, yet levels of anxiety are unbelievably high," he says.

Despite its enrollment of just 3,000 students, Colgate has a drug and alcohol awareness group, a sexual-crisis resource center (including a 24-hour hotline), and a new women's center.

A chaplain's role

But Colgate also provides another option: three chaplains who hold regular office hours.

The Rev. Nancy Devries has served as university chaplain at Colgate for nine years. She has seen students' religious devotion rise and fall. But Ms. Devries estimates that in the past few years she has consulted with 50 percent more students than in the past.

According to Devries, the same circumstances leading to therapy and medication are also sending students to church in growing numbers. "Many of the students who have therapy, or use Prozac or similar drugs, have very difficult things to deal with in their lives, and don't always have the resources of family or community present that might have been there a generation ago."

That's why there are more students at church, she continues. "It offers community; there's structure; there's warmth. There's the feeling that lives can be looked at in a larger, caring, giving, creative framework based on the existence of God and the possibility of hope."

New issues on campus

Despite a push for better services, however, many colleges are pressed to meet the needs of a student body that is growing more diverse and complex every year.

"Student bodies are dramatically different compared to what we saw 20 years ago," says Terell Jones, interim vice president of academic affairs at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. "There are new issues of race, sex, and violence that aren't being addressed."

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